In Defense of the Punditocracy

Michael Arrington. Dave Winer. Tim O’Reilly. Jason Calacanis. Add a few names of your own.

Within the navel-gazing little corner of the tech world that I inhabit, the mere mention of these names are among the most evocative things you can say. As much as any of the companies or tech executives they write about, the pundits who opine each day on the profound and mundane developments in the world of gadgets and the web are a surprisingly polarizing bunch. But it’s hard to figure out exactly why that’s the case.

Opinions are like…

Interestingly, the consensus on lots of these people (at least when they’re not in the room) is pretty negative. For almost all of them, I’ve had someone say to me flat out “That guy’s an asshole” when referring to them. Hearing it for years myself (especially when I didn’t really know any of them except by reputation), I was inclined to agree. “Who does that guy think he is? What a hack.” Prone to bluster, at times self-important, reflecting our entire industry’s frequent lack of real-world perspective, I figured the conventional wisdom about these guys was actually correct. Even if I share all of those traits myself.

Recently, I took a look at my personal experience with most of these men, and the few other high-profile tech pundits with whom I have at least a casual acquaintance. And in nearly every case, they’d been pretty much positive. Sure, I’ve cringed when the work I’ve done (either personally or as part of Six Apart) has been criticized or, worse, ignored. But it’s hard to find a time when a response to something I did was wildly unfair, or when any factual errors weren’t quickly corrected. More importantly, they’ve consistently been generous and welcoming in encouraging me to speak up not just about the opinions I have about technology or tech companies, but about the way that our industry as a whole needs to evolve.

I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on it because lately, obviously, I’ve been engaging in a bit of armchair punditry myself lately. Hopefully I’m not quite so hyperbolic as the worst excesses of contemporary tech punditry, but I’ve unabashedly been trying to be provocative and ambitious in what I’m writing. And I realize the key difference between me and those who have been the harshest critics of the current reigning powers in tech punditry is that the critics have often put the pundits on a pedestal, and then attack them for being in a position of power, not for any particularly egregious problems with the content of what they’re saying. I’ve said it before: We hate most in others that which we fail to see in ourselves.

Call it arrogance on my part, or naivete, but I have never seen any tech pundit on the web as more qualified to opine than I am, and have never ascribed more power to any blogger just because they have a bigger audience than my site, or because they happen to run a conference that people pay to attend. As a result, their shortcomings don’t bother me, and it certainly helped me get over the feeling that I should have strong feelings (positive or negative) about a bunch of guys I barely know. When they’re doing good, the tech pundits are just another bunch of good bloggers that I read, and when they’re screwing up, that just means more room for me to do what I do.

A Little Perspective

Perhaps the biggest lesson has been from my conversations with those outside of the tech industry. I always ask who they get their tech news from, and what their opinion is of those pundits. Nearly every outsider has said they’re very pleased with how the prominent tech pundits represent our industry. Those with a little bit of distance from the petty politics of the tech world are uniformly astonished at how much negativity and even contempt those within the tech industry have for our most prominent voices.

Now, I’m not saying there is nothing to criticize about the work of the major influencers in the world of web technology. You may have noticed that the example names above, along with a dozen others I could have added, will mostly fall into the category of American white male millionaires. That’s a demographic with whom I have no quibble (“Some of my best friends are…!”), but that I feel we can safely acknowledge our outreach to this group can be considered a Mission Accomplished, and we can now move on to accommodating the voices of additional groups. But most of my criticisms of their work are, I have found, more criticisms of our industry in general. An emphasis on the novel instead of the meaningful, a tendency to overemphasize minor news and downplay bigger stories, a focus on the technical details of a new technology instead of its social impact — I think the blog posts and conferences that we all participate on demonstrate these flaws as a reflection of the faults of our culture overall. I can’t judge any individual too harshly for failing to consistently rise above the culture that surrounds them.

I’ll gladly call any of these pundits on the carpet for mistakes they make, or for shortcomings in the work they produce. Hopefully, my track record of arguing for inclusiveness will be a positive nuisance to encourage them to follow the better angels of their nature. And of course, I’ll be accused of sucking up to them, even though I have no agenda in defending them except to note that the tactic of quietly insulting the tech pundits has not been particularly effective in diminishing their influence.

But as I’ve begun to (re-)dabble in punditry, I think it’s telling that private conversations (and the occasional ranting blogger) direct so much vitriol at the people who lead much of the conversation in the world of technology. it would seem the more effective form of criticism is obvious, effective and relatively easy: Just do better yourself.